Maps, stories, places

We all know that maps can help us to tell stories. I have spent many happy hours watching and listening as people point out the street they grew up in, their school, favourite beach, settings for bicycle adventures – you name it, I’ll want to see where it happened. And the maps themselves have stories to tell: whether it’s a 1920s globe featuring long-gone countries, or the ripped city plan of Budapest that I snatched all too vigorously during a navigational mishap, it’s just a matter of looking. But as well as the finished product, I want to think here about the process of mapmaking, and the stories that yields. Throughout the nineteenth century, maps were usually made in a painstaking process of engraving copper plates and transferring the resulting image to paper. If you turn over an engraved copper plate, you’ll probably find that the back of it – which you’d expect to be smooth – is marked with little hammered dents. Every one of these indents marks a place where the mapmaker has changed the map.


Why would part of a map need to be hammered out and started again?  Of course, cities change, and maps have to be up to date, but big changes such as significant urban growth would be likely to result in an entirely new map, or series of maps, being made – maybe based on the original engraving, but still a new map in its own right. These little visible edits are the result of smaller changes.At the Edinburgh firm John Bartholomew & Son, the draughtsmen, who drew and lettered the maps, but also collected information on locations, would send an edited version of an existing map to the engraving department, at which point the changes would be hammered into the plate. This usually happened as the result of some sort of dialogue.From 1898, Bartholomew had a formal relationship with the Cyclist’s Touring Club, who kept the firm up to date with the actual state of roads in exchange for discounted maps. Cyclists in the club used Bartholomew maps on their trips, and if they found a mistake, would write to the firm. This correspondence (and much more) still exists in the National Library of Scotland’s Bartholomew Archive and provides not only a great insight into the firm’s commitment to accuracy, but also into the way roads and paths have been used, understood and recorded. Town planners often come under fire for seemingly ignoring bicycles in their design of transport networks, so it’s especially interesting to note that mapmakers, at least, made significant use of cyclists’ superior knowledge of the roads.

A somewhat quirkier example comes from Park Road, just behind Arthurs’ Seat. Bartholomew moved to premises here in 1889 – but at this point, it was called Gibbet Loan. As cartographic legend has it, John George Bartholomew didn’t think this street had a suitable name for his company. Consequently, as any enterprising mapmaker would, on his next map of Edinburgh, he simply changed it to Park Road. It stuck.

So, a mark on the back of a copperplate provides a tantalising hint that something has been altered. But used in conjunction with the maps that these plates would go on to produce, we can begin to think about how the places we know now have changed throughout time – both in the way they are represented in maps themselves, and in the very act of documenting this spatial knowledge.



Originally written for the project At Home in Scotland: Stories of Place, 5 May 2014.


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